As peoples’ sacrifices go unnoticed, we turn to a new form of diplomacy to address the world’s problems. Welcome to the age of Grassroot Diplomacy.


Am I really relative?

In protest to Tunisian President Ben Ali’s regime, fruit-vendor Mohamad Bouazizi set fire to himself on 4th January 2011. His death was not in vain as the uprising spurred from his extreme action was enough to bring about regime change. But popular uprisings are not often feasible and social change is hard to achieve without them.

Take, for example, the other countless victims of self-immolation. We hear little reports of the Tibetan monks who have died of their burns in protest to Chinese repression. Given the extreme lengths that thousands of people around the world have gone to call for change, the extent to which this was successfully achieved in Tunisia makes it an isolated incident.


Being heard and enacting social reform is not just a problem under authoritarian regimes. Even in democracies, where newspapers have been filled with headlines on people crying out for change, we see little development. The Occupy movement saw thousands of people protest the international capitalist system, camping in sub-zero temperatures for months on end; while thousands of students in the UK took to the streets to protest against rising tuition fees and its effects on social mobility. From Syrian citizens to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, from American activists to China’s Tibetan monks, people in every corner of the world are crying out for help. With little relative change, it begs the question, is anyone listening? What about us ‘little people’?


There has been some recognition of the growing divide between government and their population, and concepts such as public diplomacy and civil diplomacy have sought to address this. These concepts point to government efforts to build stronger communication with the societies that elect them and to delegate greater responsibility in building positive international relations to civil society. But is this enough to bridge the disunity between civil society and political leaders?


Public diplomacy is the means by which a sovereign state communicates with foreign publics, or with publics of the state that have emigrated overseas. Not only does it provide a welcome vehicle of transparent relations between the government and the people, but it also makes it easier for members of the electorate to be clued in on the activities of its elected government. This success has been witnessed by observers of the Obama administration and its sustained effort to connect with ordinary people through social mediums like Twitter and Facebook. Nevertheless public diplomacy is increasingly becoming a buzzword that diplomats pay lip service to without making a full commitment. For example, when asked if their embassy was active in public diplomacy, one diplomat answered, “Yes, we have a Twitter account”. An infrequent ‘tweeter’ is unlikely to facilitate a strong level of trust and communication between representatives and the represented. Furthermore, being a one-way process whereby government officials open up to members of society, individuals are restricted in how they communicate with their leaders and are not given a say in what they are doing.


Citizen diplomacy differs whereby ordinary citizens are given agency in building relations between different countries, and do not have to rely on government efforts. It is described as the process whereby citizens and individual members of civil society serve as a representative overseas of the country from which they come. In this sense, citizen diplomacy can be both an active and a passive undertaking, with citizens consciously representing their country or not.


Once again, the Obama administration has been very vocal about the importance of citizen diplomacy, providing citizens with valuable opportunities to champion foreign relations themselves. However, this too is a one-way process undertaken by citizens, and does not implicate foreign relations between governments where policy is actually made. For example, I can go abroad, engage in friendly dialogue with the local people and even discuss solutions to international problems. This may give my country the image of a place where people care about the world and other cultures, but at the end of the day it won’t have any effect on my government’s policies. Everyone can be a citizen diplomat, but an ordinary citizen is unaware that they are indeed playing a role in strengthening international ties.


Power to the People


Pioneered by Talyn Rahman-Figueroa – director of Grassroot Diplomat - grassroot diplomacy is a new form of political engagement that opens up diplomatic dialogue to citizens at a grassroots level so that they can finally become champions of their own foreign policy.


A hundred years ago when travel and communications were less advanced and diplomats were deployed to administer trade between two countries, grassroot diplomacy may not have been as necessary. Citizens had far less access to information on foreign affairs and, unless at war, their lives were less affected by it. Today the world is dramatically different. With nations that are increasingly interconnected, economically, politically or culturally, national events almost always have international repercussions. Take the Eurozone for example – the economic crisis of Greece posed a serious threat to other Eurozone economies which as a result affected imports from China. Citizens now have a much larger stake in their governments’ policies and diplomacy needs to adapt to the globalised age in a way that acknowledges this. Grassroot diplomacy couldn’t come at a more important time.


The Government works for us, and so we should expect to be heard. Otherwise, without inspiring social revolt like that seen in Tunisia, the views of ordinary people are more or less forgotten. In the age of grassroot diplomacy, and with the help of diplomatic consultation groups like Grassroot Diplomat, you and I can access our governments, have a voice, and help be the change we want to see. No other form of diplomacy recognises our stake in the policies of our government, and there are no other avenues for making a case to policy-makers of what we think should be done and how we are to be affected otherwise.


Distinct from lobbying, grassroot diplomacy is reserved for members of society without the institutional means to press for policy change. This means that groups and individuals from a grassroots level are able to promote a social good and have their policy projects recognised by members of the Government. In turn, political leaders and diplomats are able to strengthen relationships with ordinary people that they are meant to serve, and not be influenced by groups with their own political agendas. As a result, grassroot diplomacy facilitates a closer mutual relationship between policy-makers and ordinary citizens and bridges the gap between civil society and political leaders. It is the new means of solving international problems that gives voice to the people who are most affected by them, and crucially it recognises that we are not just relative.


‘Grassroot Diplomacy' by Talyn Rahman-Figueroa will be released next year. 

Tags: Citizen diplomacy, Public diplomacy, diplomatic consultancy, grassroot diplomacy, international affairs consultancy, international development consultancy, talyn rahman-figueroa

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